Conditions in federal reception centres
In the federal asylum centres, asylum seekers are usually housed in single-sex dorms, while families are accommodated together. Places to rest or isolate are mostly inexistent. Rooms contain at a minimum two or three beds (such rooms are usually reserved for couples and families) and up to several dozens of beds each, equipped with bunk beds. Asylum seekers are responsible for cleaning their rooms. In its 2021 report, the National Commission for the Prevention of Torture (NCPT) considered the level of cleaning satisfactory. Asylum seekers share common showers and toilet facilities, which are poorly equipped in terms of privacy. In some cases, men and women share the same showers that they access during different times. The same happens with male and female unaccompanied minors, for whom the NCPT recommends providing specific time slots for the use of showers. UNHCR and the Swiss Refugee Council supported a summary on the recommendations for the protection of asylum-seeking woman and girls in the aftermath of a political postulate, published in October 2021.
The law stipulates that the special needs of children, families and other vulnerable persons are taken into account as far as possible in the allocation of beds, but this provision is very general. In 2021, the schooling was organized inside all federal asylum centres, while few leisure activities exist for children, especially under and above school age. The general tension that exists within the centres, due to the high psychological pressure asylum seekers are living under, the coexistence of persons with very different backgrounds, or even alcohol or drug issues that may occur in the centres, can make the situation very difficult for children, single women or other vulnerable persons.
Asylum seekers are subject to body-search by security personnel every time they come back after going out of the centres. This applies even to children coming back from school, who are systematically searched in some centres, according to the last NCPT report. According to the NCPT, children and adults should be body-searched only in case of suspicion. Security personnel is also authorised to seize certain goods when asylum seekers enter or go out of the centre. The NCPT strongly criticises the practice of confiscating food items and non-alcoholic drinks, highlighting that it is unjustified and does not rely on any legal basis.
In its latest report published in April 2023, the NCPT drew its conclusions on the visits carried out between 2021 and 2022 in 17 federal asylum centres. The Commission recognises the challenges posed by the current situation (Ukraine crisis, increasing numbers of asylum seekers, high numbers of unaccompanied minors) and calls for the need, at the political level, to ensure enough resources. Analysing the situation in the centres, it notes that there is considerable potential for improvement in many areas, such as the prevention of violence (particularly sexual violence), the application of security measures (body-searches, use of force, confiscations), the protection of persons suffering from addiction, or persons at risk of suicide or self-harm. The report focuses especially on the situation on unaccompanied minors, highlighting severe shortcomings in their support and declaring itself highly worried about the situation. The observations concerning minors and other vulnerable groups are discussed below.
Asylum seekers are required to participate in domestic work on request of the staff. Household tasks are shared between all asylum seekers according to a work breakdown schedule. The permission to leave the centre is denied until the given tasks have been accomplished. Generally, maintenance is provided by third parties, namely for cleaning tasks (especially for toilets and showers), the cooking as well as security tasks. Asylum seekers may voluntarily help to serve meals or help in the kitchen. They are not allowed to cook their own food in the federal centres (with a few exceptions regarding centres without processing facilities), but specific diets shall be respected according to internal regulation.
There is a chaplaincy service in every federal centre. Protestant and catholic chaplains spiritually accompany asylum seekers. They often play an important social role, as they provide an open ear to asylum seekers’ worries, and they sometimes call attention to problems in the centres. Between July 2016 and December 2018, a pilot project with Muslim chaplains was set up in the test centre in Zurich, which was evaluated as very positive. In January 2021, another pilot project started with Muslim chaplains in the federal asylum centres, after its prolongation in January 2022. Due to the positive effects shown in the evaluation study, the SEM is definitively introducing Muslim chaplaincy in the Federal Asylum Centres. In order to ensure the long-term financing of this service, an amendment to the Asylum Act is required.
Occupational programmes are proposed to asylum seekers from 16 years of age on, in order to give a structure to the day and thus facilitate cohabitation. The occupational programmes must respond to a local or regional general interest of the town or municipality. They must not compete with the private sector. They include work in protection of nature and the environment or for social and charitable institutions. Examples are cutting trees or hedges, fixing rural pathways, cleaning public spaces. There is no right to participate in occupational programmes. In case of shortage of places in the occupational programmes, places are distributed according to the principle of rotation of the participants. An incentive allowance may be paid to the asylum seeker. This amount is very low and can therefore not be compared to a salary for a regular job. Thus, remuneration is limited to CHF 5 per hour, a maximum of CHF 30 per working day and a maximum of CHF 400 per month. Persons staying in a special centre for uncooperative asylum seekers receive the incentive allowance in the form of non-cash benefits. In 2020, some asylum seekers reported to the Swiss Refugee Council that remuneration was provided to them only at the time of transfer to another centre, meaning that they could not access the money earned in practice.
Use of physical force and violence episodes in the federal asylum centres
During 2020, there was a number of cases in which violence escalated in the federal asylum centres. The media reported excessive use of physical force by security personnel. According to the information received by the NCPT, the security personnel intervened several times with physical coercion (fixation on the ground), pepper gel and the use of the “reflection room” (see above). Repeatedly, bruises and hematomas resulted from the interventions. Several criminal proceedings were initiated against security staff, with allegations of disproportionate or arbitrary violence and abuse of authority. As noted above, the security staff is contracted from private companies.
In the Commission’s assessment, there was considerable potential for improvement in the handling of conflicts, the prevention of violence and allegations of violence, namely through the introduction of a low-threshold and systematic complaint management system. The NCPT also recommended that security companies recruit experienced and competent personnel and improve their training, reinforce the role of assistance staff and introduce consultation hours for persons with addictions (on the basis of a best practice tested in Kreuzlingen). One positive measure that was already taken is that security agents wear an identification number on their uniform.
On 5 May 2021, the SEM communicated that it had mandated the former federal judge Niklaus Oberholzer with an independent investigation on such episodes of violence. Parallel to this, the SEM has suspended 14 security agents working in the federal asylum centres according to the media. The report was published in November 2021. It concluded that undue coercion was used in individual cases in which criminal investigations had also been initiated. The accusation of systemic disregard for the rights of asylum seekers and of torture, however, was considered false and misleading. The report included recommendations: it urged SEM to review the education and training of security staff and the filling of key security positions by SEM personnel and not to delegate the crucial security tasks fully to a private security firm. It also recommended that SEM defines more precise rules on the application of disciplinary measures and the use of ‘reflection rooms’.
In order to address these recommendations and implement them where possible, SEM has started a new project called “Prévention et Sécurité” (PreSec). Although the project has been delayed due to the management of arrivals from Ukraine, several new provisions are currently discussed and partly already implemented. In 2021, the SEM finalised a violence prevention concept for all federal asylum centres. On this basis, according to information provided by SEM, each centre has developed specific measures that are meant to prevent violence outbreaks. However, according to the NCPT, an overall awareness of violence prevention was not yet evident among the staff of most of the centres visited, including SEM managers and the staff of security companies. Furthermore, standard procedures on how to handle reports of alleged illicit or disproportionate violence by staff members as well as reports or suspected cases of sexual violence are still missing.
On 1st November 2022, the SEM has launched a pilot project creating two reporting offices (Meldestelle) in the federal asylum centres of Basel and Zurich (project phase: 18 months). The non-profit organisation SAH (Schweizerisches Arbeiterhilfswerk) has been mandated to manage those reporting offices. Asylum seekers residing in these two centres as well as security and assistance employees (but not employees of SEM nor legal representatives or volunteers) can address those offices with their complaints. The office will provide counselling to the reporting person and transmit the complaints – only if wished, and in anonymised form – to the SEM with their recommendations, that the SEM can decide to follow or not. Although the office is placed outside the centre, the office is subordinate to the SEM and has no power to order any measures or proceed to investigations in alleged cases of violence. As such, it is not an independent complaint mechanism such as recommended by the NCPT, the Swiss Refugee Council and Amnesty International, among others. However, it is a first step in that direction and it will allow to register the complaints and better identify future needs thanks to the final evaluation.
At its meeting on 25 January 2023, the Federal Council communicated its will to create transparent and comprehensive regulations for operating and guaranteeing the safety of asylum seekers and staff in federal asylum centres. Therefore, it opened the consultation process on an amendment to the Asylum Act. In doing so, it relied in particular on the recommendations of former federal judge Niklaus Oberholzer, who had investigated violence episodes in the centres and highlighted several gaps in the legal bases, in particular concerning the delegation of coercive measures to private agencies, the use of physical force, of security rooms and of disciplinary measures. The amended law should enter in force approximately by 2025.
The following adjustments are still being developed or examined:
- Appointment of officers responsible for violence prevention and personal security: The SEM would like to appoint officers responsible for violence prevention and personal security in all asylum regions in the future. These SEM-employees would be responsible for the regular quality controls and continuous on-the-job training of staff hired by the security companies. If the SEM’s funding application is approved, the job advertisement and recruitment will probably take place in the first half of 2023.
- Presence of the SEM also in the federal centres without a procedural function with a manager on site: The SEM is examining whether the presence of the SEM in the federal asylum centres without a procedural function should be strengthened.
- Examination of a pilot project on “more open centres with fewer security staff and more supervision”: As soon as the situation permits, the SEM will examine the implementation of a pilot project on “more open centres”.
Accommodation crisis in 2022
As anticipated above, during the second half of 2022 the Swiss reception system has been significantly overwhelmed, with numbers of incoming asylum-seekers exceeding the yearly and monthly projections of the SEM. The war in Ukraine may also have played a part, even though it should be stressed that Ukrainians go through a completely different procedure than the other asylum-seekers. This situation shows that, as soon as the fluctuations go outside the norm, the system is no longer able to cope with the numbers.
The Federal Administration has tried to solve the situation with temporary measures, mainly relying on the availability of alternative accommodations within the different cantons (in some cases also underground), and reaching out to the Army for additional accommodation structures (military barracks and gyms). Between October and December, it also resorted to anticipated cantonal attributions for approximately 3,300 asylum seekers: for these persons, the clock of the procedure would stop, and that their application would resume only once there would be enough capacity to examine their applications back in the federal centres.
While commendable on the one hand, these efforts are far from representing an optimal solution on the other, especially for those, among the asylum seekers, who are the most vulnerable. For what specifically concerns minors, for instance, the Swiss Refugee Council was informed that unaccompanied minors may be provisionally transferred to external structures as well, until places become available again in the main centres. This would notably concern SUMA, i.e. ‘self-reliant’ unaccompanied minors (as opposed to more vulnerable ones). The emphasis on the greater or lesser autonomy of the child should not overshadow the fact that it is still a child, and therefore a vulnerable individual, who should not be set apart from their peers, and especially from their legal representative/person of trust. The same goes for lone women, or LGBTQI+ persons, or possible VHT: if federal asylum centres are already quite problematic for them, all the more so are far-off and remote places where no overview of their needs and issues can be assured. The last NCPT report also highlighted severe shortcomings in the assistance provided to unaccompanied minors at least since February 2022, as explained more in detail in Special reception needs of vulnerable groups.
At their meeting on 26 April 2023, the Federal Council laid the foundations for coping with a rising number of asylum applications. It decided in principle to create additional accommodation places as needed. This is intended to ease the pressure on the overstretched collective structures of the Confederation and the cantons. The Federal Council has instructed the Federal Department of Justice and Police (FDJP) to draw up an overall strategy and a concept for the creation of temporary accommodation and to submit it for a decision.
Conditions in cantonal-level facilities
As explained under the section on Types of Accommodation, reception conditions differ largely from on canton to another. The Swiss Refugee Council does not follow the practice in each of the 26 cantons and can therefore only provide general information.
Most asylum seekers stay in collective centres, at least at first arrival in the canton. Generally speaking, asylum seekers benefit from less restrictive measures in the cantonal centres compared to the federal centres, as they mostly can go out at their convenience, or cook for themselves for instance. Also they might have access to limited possibilities of daily structure like occupation programmes or language courses. Asylum seekers are however frequently confronted with the remoteness of reception centres, which impedes them to meet with family members, acquaintances or even consult a legal representative if they do not have financial resources. The capacity of the centres themselves is widely varying and so are the living conditions. Some general problems which can be observed in many places are the cleanliness of the centres, the missing privacy in dormitories and the noise which may prevent people from concentrating on education programmes.
Individual housing and private accommodation with host families provide more comfortable housing conditions. Cantonal authorities strive to house families in individual accommodations, even though this is not always possible. Additionally, the people are usually not allowed to choose their place of living and apartment. The authorities provide them apartments which are rented on the general housing market. This can be a reason for the apartments not to be in best shape, since the financing is usually limited by cantonal or communal regulations of social money for asylum seekers, which is supposed to be lower than the social money for Swiss people (exception: people with refugee status). Single men and women often have to share flats with other asylum seekers. They usually cannot choose who they want to live with as long as they are not financially independent and can find their own apartment.
 NCPT, Report on federal asylum centres 2019-2020, available in German at: https://bit.ly/3cQJj7k, 27.
 Anne-Laurence Graf, Eine Zusammenfassung der Empfehlungen zum Schutz von asylsuchenden Frauen und Mädchen im Anschluss an das Postulat Feri, October 2021, available in German (and French) at: https://bit.ly/3GMF8pd.
 Article 4(1) Ordinance of the FDJP on the management of federal reception centres in the field of asylum.
 Alcohol and drugs are strictly prohibited within the centres under Article 4(2) Ordinance of the FDJP on the management of federal reception centres in the field of asylum. However, this does not prevent some breaches of the regulation from happening in practice.
 NCPT, Report on federal asylum centres 2021-2022, available in German at https://bit.ly/42pPPZh, 61 (ch. 168). This constitutes a worsening of practice since 2020. In fact, according to the NCPT report on federal asylum centres 2019-2020, body-searching of children had been limited to cases of suspicion (the report is available in German at: https://bit.ly/3cQJj7k, 20).
 NCPT, Report on federal asylum centres 2021-2022, available in German at: https://bit.ly/42pPPZh, 62.
 According to Article 4 of the Ordinance of the FDJP, security personal is allowed to seize travel and identity documents, dangerous objects, assets, electronic devices that may disturb the peace, alcohol, drugs and food. Prohibited weapons and drugs are given to the police immediately.
 NCPT, Report on federal asylum centres 2021-2022, available in German at https://bit.ly/42pPPZh, 63.
 NCPT, Report on federal asylum centres 2021-2022, available in German at https://bit.ly/42pPPZh.
 Among these were also 6 centres opened by SEM as “temporary centres”: Allschwil, Balerna, Brugg, Glaubenberg, Reinach, Sulgen. The other centres visited were Giffers, Vallorbe, Basel, Altstätten, Boudry, Embrach, Les Verrières, Bern, Zürich and Flumenthal.
 NCPT, press release, 24 April 2023, Requérants d’asile mineurs non accompagnés : la CNPT est préoccupée par l’encadrement insuffisant dans les centres fédéraux, available at : https://bit.ly/3Lz4pGV.
 The SEM delegates the task of managing the operation of reception and processing centres to third parties under Article 24b (1) AsylA. Thus, the ORS Service AG (asylum regions Western Switzerland, French speaking Switzerland and Berne) and AOZ Asyl Organisation Zürich (asylum regions Eastern Switzerland, Ticino and Central Switzerland, Zurich) are responsible for running the centres. Security services at the lodges are provided by the companies Securitas AG (asylum regions French speaking Switzerland, Eastern Switzerland, Zurich, Ticino and Central Switzerland) and Protectas SA (asylum regions Western Switzerland and Zurich). Finally, the mandates of patrols operating in the vicinity of the centres have been awarded to three companies: Securitas AG (asylum regions French speaking Switzerland, Zurich) Protectas SA (asylum regions Western Switzerland and Berne) and Verkehrsüberwachung Schweiz (asylum regions Eastern Switzerland and Ticino and Central Switzerland).
 PLEX, Version 3.0, ch. 7.5, p. 22, available in French at: https://bit.ly/3X10VkV. In 2020, the Swiss Refugee Council has received some complaints from asylum seekers with medical conditions (pregnant woman, man with diabetes) saying that their food needs were not respected.
 SEM, Lancement d’un projet pilote d’aumônerie musulmane dans les centres fédéraux pour requérants d’asile, 4 July 2016, available in French (and German and Italian) at: https://bit.ly/34s8gDW.
 SEM, Aumônerie musulmane au centre pilote de Zurich: le projet pilote donne de bons résultats, 16 February 2018, available in French (and German and Italian) at: https://bit.ly/2GkVwSm. The evaluation highlighted the relevance of spiritual support to asylum seekers of Muslim faith.
 SEM, Le SEM poursuit son service d’aumônerie musulmane dans les centres fédéraux d’asile, press release, 31 January 2022, available in French (and German and Italian) at: https://bit.ly/3QMNnXW.
 The evaluation was carried out by the Swiss Centre for Islam and Society of the University of Fribourg https://bit.ly/3XftzyR, the study Muslimische Seelsorge in Bundesasylzentren Evaluation des Pilotprojekts zuhanden des Staatssekretariats für Migration is available in German at: https://bit.ly/3XyYgPA.
 SEM, L’aumônerie musulmane est introduite durablement dans les centres fédéraux d’asile, 31 January 2023, press release available in French (and German and Italian) at: https://bit.ly/3E9AwKH.
 Article 6a Ordinance of the FDJP.
 See the Communication of 15 May 2020 of the Swiss Refuge Council on this matter, Violence au centre fédéral pour requérants d’asile de Bâle, available in French (and German) at: https://bit.ly/2Z0xsvl.
 NCPT, Report on federal asylum centres 2019-2020, 22-24. See also newspaper article Violence à Chevrilles, Le Courrier, 18 June 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3pbGQXm.
 SEM, Le SEM commande une enquête sur des allégations de violence, press release, 5 May 2021, available in French (and German and Italian) at: https://bit.ly/3tBUm92.
 Swissinfo, Switzerland launches probe into suspected asylum centre violence, 5 May 2021, available in English at: https://bit.ly/3xWpjbz.
 NCPT, Report on federal asylum centres 2021-2022, available in German at https://bit.ly/42pPPZh, 38 (ch. 173); 48 (ch. 214).
 NCPT, Report on federal asylum centres 2021-2022, available in German at https://bit.ly/42pPPZh, 48 (ch. 214); 50 (ch. 228).
 Le Temps, Le SEM crée un bureau des signalements pour deux centres d’asile, Le Temps, 12 December 2022, available in French at : https://bit.ly/3QpvXkl.
 SEM, Sécurité et exploitation des centres fédéraux pour requérants d’asile : le Conseil fédéral met en consultation des modifications de la législation, press release, 25 January 2023, available in French (and German and Italian) at: https://bit.ly/40s5KGa. The Swiss Refugee Council has submitted its opinion on the project of law. It is available, in French, at: https://bit.ly/3LA00n5. See also the press release, available at: https://bit.ly/3HIJfFr.
 Following accusations by non-governmental organisations and the media, former federal judge Niklaus Oberholzer was commissioned by SEM to investigate whether violence is being systematically used in federal asylum centres. For more information see https://bit.ly/3PWN1h3.
 Information provided by the SEM, 1 May 2023.
 See also paragraph 1.1. in this chapter
 NCPT, Report on federal asylum centres 2021-2022, available in German at https://bit.ly/42pPPZh, 8 (ch. 10).
 Federal Council, press release 26 April 2023, available in French (and German and Italian) at: https://bit.ly/3AONxqD.